“The Sea of Trees” by Cherish Larain

Kari was the only visitor at the grave. She sat there with crossed legs, flowers, snacks, offerings, cleaning supplies, and her black cat, Neko.

            As she ate her botomachi, Neko lay at the top of the headstone and dozed lightly. Kari wore a black sports jacket that had three stripes of blue going down one arm and three stripes of pink going down the other arm pushed up around her elbows, a plaid black and white shirt, and black ripped jeans. Her shoes were bright pink and matched her backpack. Her outfit plus her bleached blond hair with pink and blue ends was very untraditional for the Japanese families around her. Kari ignored the stares from them as they sat at their own family graves.

            “Want a snack, Neko?” Kari asked as she opened up another sweet.

Neko peaked open an eye. “Does it have fish in it?”

Kari shook her head and held it out for him to smell. After a quick sniff, Neko closed his eyes and relaxed his body once again. “No, thanks.”

“K, but don’t blame me if you get hungry later.”

“I’ll steal some snacks from the priests later.” Neko yawned and cleaned himself.

“That’s not very nice,” Kari said and stretched herself before standing up with a big sigh. “Let’s get going. We shouldn’t waste daylight.”

Neko gave a whine but slowly got up as well. “Do we have to? It’s not like it does much anyways.”

“You can go home if you want.” Kari placed the flowers in the flower holder attached to the grave. She also left some snacks and fruits on the altar before she threw all the rest of the items in her backpack. She surveyed the grave and made sure it was properly cleaned before stepping back.

Neko jumped off the grave and sat straight up next to Kari’s right leg. Kari clapped twice and bowed. Neko bowed with her. After a few seconds,  they both turned and walked down the steep long stone stairs to the main road.

The grave had been filled with quiet murmurs that slowly faded away as they got closer to the main road. The main road was closed off to cars to celebrate Shounbun no Hi (the autumn harvest). However, it is crowded with pedestrians. Young children chased each other in yukata’s and tennis shoes and some couples were in Yukata or date clothes. Due to the bright colors around the street, people didn’t stare and gape at Kari. She almost passed as a foreigner among them.

Neko weaved in and out of Kari’s legs as she walked. He occasionally strayed when smelled the delicious scent of grilled meat but he always found his way back to Kari quickly. The sounds increased the further along the street they walked. Street vendors on each side of the road sold food in food carts. Some shops were owned by local restaurants and others were owned by local priests. The priests wore kimono and yukata while attempting to sell food or charms for their shrines or temples.

Kari took in the sights, sounds, and smells fondly. She used to love festival season in Japan. It helped bring out the contrast of Japan’s modern yet old aesthetic. Japan’s concrete buildings covered all populated areas. But the nature of Japan looked like it was fighting back. Every building and road had moss, flowers, or trees growing alongside, between, or on the buildings. At times it looked like nature was slowing covering the city.

She heard drums and shouts from local priests, priestesses, and performers celebrating local deities. Smaller shrines played flutes that Kari only heard when near one of their stalls as the drums echoed throughout the streets. Chants were heard in rhythm to the drums and small children danced and screamed along.

Kari stopped at a small stall. The old priestess worked on small trinkets for protection and good luck. After watching the priestess work, and noticed the priestess’s shrine worshiped foxes as their guardians, she bought all the charms and keychains. The old priestess thanked her a million times before letting Kari continue on her way.

            She paused to watch a father try and help his son catch a goldfish with a rice paper net. The young son cried after he broke his rice net. His dad bought one more rice net and quickly caught a goldfish for his son. The child stopped crying and carefully held the bowl the game shop owner gave him and stared happily at his new pet. When the stand owner caught sight of Kari he motioned for her to try but she shook her head no and moved on.

            When she noticed Neko again, she saw that he had managed to find a young child to give him grilled fish. He purred happily and let the child pet him before running off to rejoin Kari who rolled her eyes at him. Soon, they reached the end of the road block and turned down a smaller road. The music and sound of people started to fade. The further she walked away from the main road, the older the buildings and the more nature reclaimed the area.

She still heard the drums.

The stone road turned into a dirt trail that leads into the forest. Just before she entered, she stopped at two very small shrines. Both cared for by the elderly in the area with no priests or priestesses to take care of them.  Kari took off her backpack and gave each shrine a small orange and a one yen coin before bowing. Neko rubbed up against her and they turned together to walk into the forest that stretched around them like a never ending ocean.

They no longer heard the drums.

“I probably should have brought a thicker jacket,” murmured Kari. It was slightly past noon but the trees made the day feel a little chilly.

“Feels nice to me,” Neko chirped. Kari gave him an annoyed look. “What? Not my fault you don’t have fur.”

Kari rolled her eyes and ignored him. She stopped at the first branch within reach of the path and placed one of the wooden protection charms on it. “May your ancestors watch, protect, and guide you,” said Kari as she held onto the wooden charm. It glowed yellow and returned to normal.

Kari and Neko continued down the path. The light wind caused the leaves and trees to wrestle and birds chirped everywhere. “What’s the plan after this? We should get grilled fish.”

Kari nodded. “I saw a good yakiniku place a few buildings back. It said it would be open til 2am. I am gonna need a lot of strength after this. Not sure if they allow cats, though.”

Neko growled. “Who doesn’t love cats?”

            “People who like dogs,” Kari smirked. Neko hissed as they stopped at the next branch on the trail. Kari repeated the same words as before and then continued on.

They continued on this route for two hours before Kari ran out of the charms from the old priestess. Kari flipped her backpack around and wore it in front of her. She unzipped the backpack and held a folded paper in her hand as they reached the end of the marked trail. There was a small warning sign that beyond this point was for serious hikers. Kari tied the folded paper on the warning sign and whispered, “May you bring hope.”

The paper burned brighter than the wooden charms before returning to normal. A heavy wind swept through the forest.

“They didn’t like that one.” Neko walked ahead of Kari onto the unmarked trail.

“Charms made by the witch themselves are more powerful than ones made by others,” Kari explained as she followed after Neko. “They really should expect this though.”

“Maybe you’re stronger this year,” Neko suggested, “So, they have a stronger reaction.”

“That and there’s not many evil spirits this close to the edge of the forest.”

“Really?” Neko looked up surprised, “I thought they’d be all over this cursed place.”

Kari shook her head. “Many normal people walk through the path with good intentions. After all this is a beautiful forest and good for hiking. Some people even stray from the marked path for a more challenging hike. The people with wavering hearts go further into the woods, and that’s whern the danger comes.”

“Wonder if we’ll see a dead body.” Neko hummed.

Kari glared and tried to kick him but he moved out of the way. “That’s what we are trying to prevent.”

“I know that,” Neko glared back, “It would be interesting to see one is all.”

“I picked the wrong familiar.” Kari grumbled as she stopped at another branch. She tied another folded paper, but no burst of wind came.

“I am just curious. You told me we would see things and so far I am unimpressed. We could be improving our battle spells at home right now.”

“Shoulda named you Curiosity.”

“Funny.”

“The spirits will come out earlier than normal because of the autumnal equinox, but we still have to wait until closer to sunset. Unless, they have an animal form,” Kari picked another charm from her backpack and held it in her hand. “We might have already seen a few of the weaker ones. Be sure not to eat any of the animals here.”

Neko watched a small bird take flight with a predatory look. “No promises.”

“I am not gonna save you if it winds up being a demon and eats you.”

“That’s not something you should say to your partner,” whined Neko. “How can I help it if my stomach gets me into trouble? I’m a cat. It’s in my nature.”

“Oh, so now you’re just a cat.” Kari stopped and tied another folded paper onto a tree branch. Three dark birds nearby took flight after the paper glowed.

“Well, not just a cat. But, I do have catlike tendencies. Meow.”

Kari stopped walking. “Did you just, ‘Meow’?”

“Yes, to prove my point. Meow.”

“That’s going to get annoying real fast.” Kari kicked a rock in his direction and missed. Neko hissed at her.

They continued to banter back and forth as they walked deeper into the woods in hopes of minimising what they were actually there for. They felt another cold breeze before they tied their next folded paper and a chipmunk dropped a big nut from the trees. Neko eyed it wearily.

“What are you doing?”

Kari and Neko looked to their right and saw a large raccoon type of animal; it was a tanuki. He was laying in leaves and a fallen log.

“May you conquer your demons,” Kari finished her spell and tied another folded paper before answering the tanuki. “I am posting protection spells.”

“Not sure if those will work here,” The tanuki said as he yawned, “You might be wasting your magic.”

“Why won’t they work?” Kari asked as Neko moved closer to Kari and began to pose with his back raised in warning.

“This place holds too much evil and sadness. Old spirits linger here.”

“Then why do you stay?” Neko challenged. “You can’t possibly be happy here.”

“It’s one of the few places that is safe for us creatures. Humans have all but extinguished the supernatural. And not all of us can get a witch to be our familiar.” The tanuki cleaned his paws.

“You don’t look like you’re suffering too much.” Kari replied as she took in the size of the tanuki.

“The Japanese have a soft spot for us,” The tanuki replied, “I can get food as easily as a stray cat. My more ugly or threatening brothers, like kappa or kitsune, aren’t as lucky.”

“There are kappa here?!” Kari asked surprised. “They’re really far from Tono city. Why aren’t they there?”

“Our nature is connected to the environment. When the humans began overpopulating, we were forced into hiding. Before that we could move or act freely. Now, we are chained to the most magical places near us.” The tanuki looked up at the sky before it laid its head down and closed his eyes. “It is a death sentence to try and make it to another stronger magical area.”

“What if someone helped?” Kari asked.

“This is all we know now. No matter how much we complain, we will never leave here. It is the home of our ancestors and will be our graves,” The tanuki’s eyes stayed closed. “Besides, if you ignore the spirits and the lower level demons, the place does grow on you.”

Neko relaxed his position and sat down next to Kari, cocking his head to the left. “So we will see some ghosts?”

The tanuki opened one eye. “You are aware you’re in the Sea of Trees forest, aren’t you? The most haunted and demonic place in Japan?”

“He knows,” Kari tried to kick Neko again but he jumped out of the way with a hiss. “He didn’t think it would be as bad as the rumors are.”

“You’ve been known to exaggerate.” Neko defended.

“It’s the autumn equinox, even if we weren’t in this forest we would still see spirits tonight.”

“Yeah, near graveyards.” Neko rolled his eyes.

“No, the human is right. You are both powerful enough where you would see more than just the spirits here and at graveyards. Being here is dangerous,” The tanuki agreed with Kari. “Today is a special day, you should be at your family grave, they will be waiting for you.”

“There is only one person we are interested in seeing and he has never visited his own grave,” Neko said.

“It’s more important that we’re here,” insisted Kari.

“Is it?” mused the tanuki. “I thought family is the most important to humans. Gods know they breed enough for it to be true. You should celebrate the good harvest. Days grow darker now, there will be more monsters you will have to face.”

Kari smiled kindly, “I lost someone to this forest. I want to try and help prevent anyone else from losing someone to it.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” The tanuki nodded gravely. “Your desire is a big one for just one person and her pet.”

“No one else will help me. They think this forest is too lost to be saved.” Kari sighed, “Besides, Neko is all I need.”

“And you still come?”

Kari nodded, “Even powerful witch families fear the evil of this forest. They don’t understand that it’s not the forest that is evil.”

“I am glad you understand,” The tanuki smiled and nodded before looking up at the sky. “You should get back to work then, the sun is setting.”

Kari and Neko bowed and then tanuki returned it before going back to sleep. They walked a good 30 minutes before Kari placed another paper charm on a branch. “May your demons vanish.”

“You should have brought a thicker jacket,” Neko finally agreed when another cold wind blew.

Kari rolled her eyes. “It was warmer last year, next year I will bring a thicker coat.”

“Have you ever seen spirits here?” Neko asked as he watched the sun slowly set.

Kari shook her head. “I have see their remnants, but no spirits. I didn’t have you before and I’m not strong enough on my own to see spirits yet.”

“What’s the difference between remnants and spirits?”

“Spirits are the souls of the living that haven’t moved on. If powerful enough they can interact with humans and witches, but that is rare. Ghosts aren’t bound by one place, they can travel if they feel like it. Most spirits are here because they have regrets or unresolved problems. Remnants are the last moments of life imprinted onto the environment that is around them.” Kari jumped over a big root that covered the trail. “They’re also the most scary. They look very angry or sad. Their actions are like a GIF; playing over and over again. Unchanging.”

“That does seem scary.”

“There are more remnants than spirits—” Kari got cut off by a scream. They quickly turned toward the sound and saw an old woman in white robe fall to her knees while crying. The old woman blurred before the old woman screamed again and then fell to her knees while crying.

Kari watched the woman’s actions one more time before she walked over to the tree nearest the old woman and tied a charm to a tree branch. “May your anger, pain, and sadness vanish.”

The paper glowed and the old woman couldn’t be heard screaming. However, the remnant of the woman remained, only in silence.

“You sure you don’t want to use two charms and get rid of the remnant entirely?” Neko asked as he sadly watched the womans’ repetitive actions.

Kari shook her head and they continued walking. “You can’t get rid of remnants unless you get rid of the environment it was created in. Remember the remnant is imprinted on its surroundings. If you bulldozed all the trees, rocks, and sand around it and built a hotel or restaurant it would vanish. What I can do is get rid of the pain, anger, and sadness she left behind. It’s those feelings that affect others.”

Neko walked in silence and wagged his tale before asking, “So, when will we see ghosts?”

Kari rolled her eyes at his nonchalance. “I don’t know if ghosts are here, but I imagine that the ghosts would be further along the trail. From that old woman’s clothes, I guess the people that died this close to the trail were probably from the edo period when old men and women came here to die from sickness or to help relieve some hunger from their family or village when there was famine or drought.”

“Yes, the older deaths were more noble.” Spoke a silky voice from the shadows.

Neko hissed at the voice, arched his back and stood in front of Kari while she finished tying another charm.

“May your demons vanish.” Kari spelled as a fox slowly crept into the final lights of the day.

“It’s been a year already?” The fox asked as he finished stepping out of the shadows. He was an auburn color with white under his mouth all the way down to his tails. The fox had three tails that swished behind him.

Kari sighed and nodded at the fox before walking deeper into the forest. Neko hissed as the fox followed her. The fox ignored him.

“I see you brought a friend this time. Am I not good enough company?”

“If I want to go further into the woods and leave more protective spells I need my familiar.” Kari picked up Neko when he ran to her and allowed him to stand on her shoulders. Neko watched and glared at the fox.

The fox hummed. “I suppose you’re right. Although a fox would make a better familiar, I guess the cat’s eyes would be useful in the dark.”

The sun fully set and they stood in darkness. While Neko’s eyes reflected light, the fox demon’s eyes glowed a dark yellow. The forest was quiet for three heart beats before agonizing screams echoed throughout the forest. The screams were sad and the darkness felt lonely. Neko rubbed against Kari as she pulled a small flashlight from her backpack.

“It’s a good thing we’re not staying the night.”

“Indeed, many do not make it past midnight.”

Neko growled and rubbed Kari harder.

“Neko, this is Kitsune. Kitsune, this is Neko.” Kari introduced. Both animals scoffed at the generic names.

“Pleasure to meet you.” The fox purred with his yellow eyes squinting in irritation.

“Likewise.” Sneered Neko.

The fox shifted and hissed, “Your cat has no manners to the forest spirits.”

“You’re a demon not a forest spirit.” Neko hissed back.

Kitsune growed. “I am the closest thing to a forest spirit, cat.”

“You are not alone,” Kari tied another charm. “Knock it off you too.”

Neko and Kitsune stopped growling at eachother but continued to glare at one another. They walked in silence as the moon slowly rose. The forest continued to darken.

“How long will you stay this time?” Kitsune questioned.

“Well before midnight.” Neko purred quietly at her response. Both of them know that witches tended to draw supernatural things to them. The stronger the witch—the stronger things that can find them. Not to mention that the witching hour being the best time for paranormal things to roam. Add in today being the autumn equinox (one of days were the lines between worlds are weaker) and that spells trouble for them to stay longer than necessary.

“That’s a shame,” The fox sighed. “You would have so much fun here.”

Kari shrugged. “It wouldn’t be safe.”

“I could protect you.” Kitsune offered perking up and causing Neko to stiffen. “I am basically the forest spirit now. I am the most powerful being in the forest. And there are two shrines dedicated to me outside of the forest. Humans still pray to me.”

“The tanuki looked better fed than you.” Neko sneered.

“The tanuki is a scavenger that eats trash!” The fox growled. “The humans give me offerings. They tell stories of kitsune and they take care of my shrines. They know this is my forest!”

“The forest belongs to no one!” Neko hissed. “It doesn’t belong to you no matter how many  humans give you offerings!”

Kari’s stomach growled. “Knock it off and let’s eat.”

“You’re gonna let him eat with us?” whined Neko.

The fox’s tails swished back and forth arrogantly. “She always let me eat with her. For the last eight years.”

Neko scrunched his nose in distaste and jumped off of Kari’s shoulders, when she leaned down to begin setting up for a small dinner. She took a small lantern out of her backpack and set it on the floor. She gave each of the boys rice balls. The fox ate what she offered quickly while Neko grimaced at the food before eating.

Two remnants manifested next to them. An old man and an old woman dressed in traditional Japanese clothing that were old and worn. They held each other and cried as they walked deeper into the forest before they flickered out and then replayed the same actions. Kari sighed and tied a charm onto a nearby branch.

“Overcome your worries and fears.”

“Why do you think they did it?” Neko asked as he flicked his ear.

After Kari said the charm, the couple faded and flickered. Their images blurry but no sound was heard from the old couple. The charm was super effective and the couple almost vanished completely. Neko and Kitsune had to squint to see the couple clearly after the spell.

“They came here during a feminine. Many Japanese elders came here to die because of bad harvests or their families didn’t have money.” The fox said. “It was pretty normal if they were too old, too weak, or too sick to work. If they felt like burdens, they would come here to die. It was an honorable thing to do.”

“Do they really need a charm? They were really quiet when we saw them.” Neko asked as Kari pet him sadly.

Kari nodded. “ I need to leave the charm there because humans can feel the remnant’s sadness. It would double or triple their own sadness.”

The fox continued eating his riceballs and eyed Neko’s. Kitsune licked his face and snorted. “Foolish humans, so weak to their own emotions. And then they leave those emotions behind them and allow it to contaminate the forest.”

Neko glared at Kitsune as he caught the fox eyeing Neko’s unfinished rice balls. Neko quickly finished them as Kari spoke up.

“They don’t do it on purpose. They can’t see the way we do.”

“Of course not.” The fox scoffed. “They would have to care in order to see. Humans are so self—centered.”

“I think every creature is like that. Humans are just more open about it.” Kari shrugged as Neko finished his last rice ball. He roamed over to Kari as she spoke and rubbed up against her purring loudly.

Kitsune looked at Neko distastefully. “We should continue if you want to get more charms hung up than last year.”

Kari nodded and placed their trash in her backpack. The sun set, the temperature dropped, and they still had a few miles to go. With the sun gone the frequency of remnants increased. The forest echoed death and sadness. The deeper into the woods they traveled the difference in ages and time periods became more apparent. Soon they were seeing college and high school students in uniforms.

Most of the time, they heard crying. Sometimes they heard rants and other times they heard praying. Sometimes they heard nothing but witnessed final moments of life.

Each time, Kari said a chant and tied a charm and the remnant would fade. The forest seemed calmer.

“You’re seeing a lot more remnants this time.” Kitsune mused. “Maybe you’ll see a ghost this year. Who knows, you might even see your boyfriend.”

Neko hissed and Kari flinched.

“I don’t come here in hopes of seeing him or his remnant. If his spirit is here, that means he hasn’t moved on.” She paused. “I just want to make this forest better. I want to clean the forest of bad intent so that way it will stop having influence on those who are experiencing a moment of weakness.”

“They were always weak.”

Suddenly, a huge boar charged at them. The fox and Neko jumped out of the way while Kari grabbed a low tree branch and held her body off the ground.

The boar’s eyes glowed yellow and steam blew out of his nose. “How dare you take away my energy!”

The boar headbut the tree Kari was holding onto in hopes of knocking her out. The tree shook but Kari held firm. Neko climbed up next to Kari and hissed at the boar. The boar growled back before he crashed into the tree again. Kari managed to pull herself up and sat on the branch without spilling any of her charms in her backpack.

“You still hungry, Neko?” Kari asked as she pulled out a small pocket knife.

“Eat him?” Neko scoffed. “No way! He smells of human flesh.”

The boar realised that his headbuts were doing no damage to the tree, his anger escalated. He growled and it echoed tore through the forest like a large bears’ growl. His body began shaking and parts of him began morphing and melting.

Kari grabbed one of her charms just as smoke began to pour out of the boar’s body and rush in her direction.

“Purify!” Kari shouted. The paper burst into flames while in her hand. However, it purified the area around her.

The boar jumped back and roared in pain before charging again. The boar’s body morphed into human hands. Some hands leaked smoke, while some hands appear to be tempting to escape from the boar’s body. Muffled screams of dead humans that the boar devoured over the years escaped in the boar’s loud roars.

“One good thing about boars— no matter how much energy they consume— they remain dumber than dirt.” Neko smirked down at the boar.

“Oh gross!” Kari turned her head and breathed into her shoulder when the wind changed directions and brought the boar’s scent in her direction.

“Told ya he reeks!” Neko rolled his eyes. “Best to just purify him. His energy won’t do me no good.” The boar hit the tree again with a loud screech. Neko and Kari gripped the tree as it finally cracked.

“Ok, well get down there and be a distraction. I need some power up time.” Kari took a small pocket knife out of her jacket and pricked her finger. Neko walked over and licked her bleeding finger. “Blood brother, familiar bound by contract and name; please protect me.”

Neko jumped from her tree to another one. He leaped onto a tree behind the boar and turned into a jaguar before hitting the ground. Neko released a fearsome growl and the boar turned and attacked him immediately.

Kari quickly unzipped her backpacks front pouch and pulled out a small batch of blank rectangular papers. Using her still bleeding finger she wrote the kanji for purify and on another paper she wrote the kanji for cleansing. Kari heard a loud thump and growl from Neko and she turned to check on him.

Neko jumped back into another tree and dry heaved, “Disgusting!”

“Did you bite him?!” Kari asked as the demon boar roared and rammed into Neko’s tree.

“Yes!” Neko whined. “And it is disgusting!” He dry heaved again and almost fell out of his tree.

Kari rolled her eyes and focused on pouring energy onto the paper. She held up both papers and closed her eyes. The blood on the paper charms glowed before bursting into flames. She murmured a quick purification spell as the boar bounced off of Neko’s tree and turned back in her direction.

“That’s a shame.” Kari sighed as the boar glowed brightly and slowly disappeared before he reached Kari’s tree. “He was too infected with negative energy to be restored to a proper boar.”

Neko coughed again, “From the taste of him, I would say that he’s been consuming human flesh for a while.” Neko jumped to the floor and licked himself in an attempt to get rid of the taste of the boar. “I think he was a regular boar to begin with too.”

Kari nodded. “He probably fed off of dead humans that carried a lot of negative energy after they died. It’s a shame that animals and humans are victims of this forest.”

            Neko stopped licking himself. “At least he wasn’t much of a challenge. And your fox friend disappeared.”

            “He does that sometimes.” Kari shrugged.

            “He could have helped.” Neko growled. “You could have saved that energy for later, when we need it to leave the forest.”

            Kari climbed down the tree. “We probably won’t see him again.”

            “Unless he wants to prank us.” Neko grumbled about stupid trickster foxes as he too climbed down from his tree.

            Kari pet Neko’s head. “Prank you, you mean? He likes me.”

            “Come on, let’s get this over with.” Neko bumped her with his head and pushed her forward.

            Kari giggled and began walking again. She checked her watch with light from her flashlight. “We should turn around in ano hour or so. We want to be out of the forest before midnight.”

            Kari placed a charm on a tree nearby and murmured, “Your family loves you.”

            “How much further?” Neko glanced at the moon.

“Not much. In fact—” Kari wiped her sweaty hands and they heard running water. “We’re here.” They reached the lake near the northern part of the woods. It was dark but the full moon shined above them. The waterfall on the other side of the big lake fell into the lake in a calming manner.

“Beautiful.” Neko marveled.

Kari nodded taking in the serene scene before them. “The water wasn’t always this clear. It took a few years to get rid of the people who drowned themselves and stop their spirits from drowning others. They tainted the water. So, don’t drink it.”

“Of course I won’t drink it,” scoffed Neko. “Even familiars are aware of the corruption of this lake. I’d rather drink my own piss.”

“Gross,” Kari rolled her eyes while she searched her bag. “Well, let’s get to work.” Kari pulled out a charm with the kanji for “sky” written on it and placed it on Neko’s back. Neko burst into blue flames. Kari climbed onto Neko’s back and he jumped into the sky.

Kari dropped charms into the lake causing the lake to shift to black. The lake swayed and waves formed. Kari and Neko listened to sobs and moans as they soared over the lake. Neko and Kari observed the lake as Kari threw her last charm. It was no longer a serene sight. The lake bore a strong resemblance to Hades’ river of death. Arms, legs, and faces tried to escape the river but couldn’t.

“Ready?” Kari pet Neko and he nodded and flew them higher up. The charms in the lake[1]  began to glow blue.  “Release!” Kari shouted. The charms turned red and burst into flames. The flames slowly vanquished the souls stuck inside the lake. The lake stilled and the forest became silent once more. While there were not any evil spirits in the lake, the lake still emitted a sad aura. Kari rested her head on Neko as he slowly flew to the ground. When they landed, Kari flopped onto the floor and laid there breathing hard and sweating. Her backpack laid open beside her.

“Not bad,” Neko sat at the edge of the lake. “In a few years, this lake might actually be a normal lake.”

“Maybe when I’m fifty.” Kari rolled onto her stomach and laid her head on her arms, energy almost completely drained. “Last year there was finally a noticeable decrease in deaths. Not a big decrease, but enough.”

Neko checked the location of the moon. “Come on, let’s get going. It’s getting too late for my liking.”

“Kay.” Kari gave a huge sigh but held her hand up for Neko to crawl under. When he was half way under her, he stood and helped Kari stand. Kari held onto him as she reached down for her backpack and pulled out an origami flower bouquet. She zipped up her bag and put it on her back. Then she told Neko the direction to walk. 

They trudged to the other side of the lake towards an area where a tree grew next to the lake. The tree had roots that went directly into the lake. In one area on the tree, its roots looked as if one could lay comfortably in them. One branch was long and thick enough that someone long ago tired a rope onto it to swing off the tree and into the lake—or for darker things.

On the tree trunk was carved, “REST IN PEACE” and below that was a list of names (or initials) and dates of loved ones who died at or near the lake. Kari ran her fingers over the fourth to last name on the tree, “Natsu Showa” and the date marked eight years prior. Neko sat near her and watched quietly as Kari stepped back from the tree and held the origami bouquet and whispered, “Transform.”

The origami flowers morphed into real flowers that Kari placed at the root of the tree. She clapped her hands twice and bowed. Neko stood and bowed with her.

“So, you don’t want to see me?” A voice from behind Kari said. She stiffened and froze while Neko turned quickly and growled. The voice ignored Neko. “Shouldn’t you want to see your boyfriend?”

Blood rushed through her ears and Kari slowly turned around. Her fear caused her to look from his feet to his face slowly. There was a pang in her heart when she saw his face. He looked exactly the same as she remembered him eight years ago: wearing dark jeans and a white collared shirt that had his family emblem embroidered on his shirt pocket above his heart. His hands in his pockets.

Then again, he was a ghost. He will be forever unchanging and stuck at the age of his death; only 20 years old. Too young to die. His whole life had been ahead of him. Including a whole life with her. The only difference now was that he was glowing and slightly translucent. However, he appeared more solid and corporeal compared to the remnants Kari and Neko encountered earlier.

“Wow, you look old,” He joked then gestured towards her hair. “I like the pink.”

A heartbroken smile formed on Kari’s face. She reached out and pet Neko to calm him down—he didn’t.

“I didn’t know age mattered to you.”

His brows furrowed. “It doesn’t, you just look old.”

“Thanks.” Kari grimaced.

“You know what I mean,” Natsu rolled his eyes. “How old are you?”

“24.” Kari rubbed Neko’s ears to calm herself.

“Did you graduate college?”

“Barely,” Kari shrugged.

He smiled and nodded his head. “Our families expect too much of us sometimes——going to school full time and expecting us to go on missions for them at the drop of a hat.”

A tear rolled down Kari’s face.

Natsu took his hand out of his pocket and took a step toward Kari while raising his hand as if to cup her face. He stopped when Neko’s growls increased. “Hey now, don’t cry.”

“It’s a little hard not to,” Kari swallowed. “ It is your death day after all.”

“I’m not worth crying over,” He stated as he put his hand back into his pocket. He shifted from one foot to another. “I’m sorry.”

“That doesn’t make it better.” Kari choked out as more tears fell from her eyes. Her chest ached.

 “ I know it doesn’t.” Natsu released a deep sigh. There was a long pause as they would look at each other and then look away in pain. “How does it feel to be 24?  You finally get to be older than me.”

“Sometimes it feels exactly like 16. Sometimes it feels like 20.” Kari looked down at Neko. “It’s repetitive and fast. But also new and slow.”

“Interesting.”

Neko nudged Kari and motioned toward the moon. The moon shifted higher into the sky. They might have to walk back quickly if they don’t leave soon. If they stayed later, they will have to run out of the forest before midnight.

“Why didn’t you want to see me?”

Kari looked back at him, “I’m not ready. What if you were a malicious spirit? I would have to purify you.” Kari looked down at Neko. “ Plus, it took some time to convince Neko to be my familiar. He wasn’t so interested in having a partner considering how bad his last one went. Good familiars are hard to find and I wouldn’t want anyone else.” Neko purred at Kari’s praise and did not speak to Natsu.

Natsu looked up at the stars, “You should probably leave soon. It’s getting late.”

“Why did you do it?”

Natsu appeared to take a deep breath and then blew the hair out of his face. “Not too sure now. For a while it was because of pain and stress. I wanted to escape. You have to admit the counsel expects a lot from us.”

“That’s a shitty excuse.”

Natsu raised his eyebrow at Kari’s rude response. “What does it matter now? An answer won’t change anything. I still killed myself. I am still dead. And it won’t make you feel better.” Natsu insisted as he stared at Kari’s angry face.

“Tell me,” Kari demanded.

“It was Beijing. The counsel made us do really bad things in Beijing.”

“You should have shared your problems with me—you didn’t have to face those demons alone.”

“Yes,” Natsu scoffed. “Because telling your 16 year old betrothed the horrors of the counsel and your families is a burden you want to share with a teenager.”

“Of course,” Kari disagreed. “Because then I would have been prepared. I wouldn’t have to go through it without you.”

Neko nudged her. They had been here too long. He could feel the soil turn cold. Kari scratched his ear harder in understanding.

“I wish I was really seeing you.” Kari sighed as she turned away from Natsu and put on her backpack.

Natsu frowned. “What do you mean? Where are you going?”

“It’s time to go home. It’s dangerous for me to be here.” Neko slowly backed away from Natsu and followed Kari but did not turn his back to Natsu.

“You don’t want to stay here a bit longer with me? You won’t be able to see me again until next year.”

Kari turned back to look at him. “If you were actually Natsu, I might actually be tempted to stay. Please don’t follow us and we will leave in peace.”

Natsu’s face went blank. “What do you mean?”

“What’s my real name?”

Natsu’s eyes flickered toward Neko, whose back was now arched and he looked ready to lunge. “Names are powerful. You wouldn’t want me to say it in front of him. He could use it against you.”

Kari turned her back to Natsu and began walking away from the lake and into the forest. “He knows my name. Just like he knows yours. After all, he was your familiar first.”

Neko followed Kari into the forest walking backwards and took huge satisfaction of the shocked look on the imposter’s face. Neko had just turned around fully when the shock went away and the imposter became angry. He took a step to follow them but Neko heard him move on the forest floor before he growled as he turned around.

The imposter hissed back.

“Your illusion is very good. I didn’t even notice your tails.” Kari turned back to look at the imposter with a disappointed look on her face.

The imposter quickly glanced behind him to double check on his tails out of habit when she mentioned them. “What gave it away then?”

“For one, Neko was Natsu’s familiar before he was mine. Natsu would never ignore him.” Neko backed into Kari trying to push her deeper into the forest and back from where they came from. “Another was that Natsu never called me Kari.”

“He did when he died,” Kitsune defended. “His last words were your name. He loved you and yet he still killed himself, the fool.”

“Sometimes our own demons are stronger than the ones we love,” Kari explained. “We are going to leave peacefully. However, if you attempt to do this next year, I will kill you.”

The Kitsune growled, making Natsu’s face warp. “You threaten me in my own forest?!”

“Consider it a gift from someone who was your friend. I won’t be this kind to you next year.” Neko arched higher as Kitsune growled at her. Neko released his own growl so powerful it caused the forest to shake.

“You can keep your gift.” Kitsune snarled. “You think you got out of here safely before because you were powerful? Nothing attacked you because I protected you. Try getting out of here alive without my protection.”

Immediately, the forest shook and a warm breeze fluttered around them. Neko and Kari took off into the forest. Her protective charms lit the way back to the entrance.

 “If I can’t be your familiar and get out of this godforsaken forest, then you won’t be able to leave either!” Kitsune’s voice echoed through the sea of trees around them.

Kari quickly took out her pocket knife and slashed her hand open as they ran. She jumped onto Neko’s back and shoved her blood down his throat as he continued to run.

“Neko, fly!” Kari ordered and blue flames burst around them and soon Neko was flying. “Don’t fly too high and lose sight of the charms!”

“I know!” Neko yelled. “I focus on flying, you focus on defense!”

An owl flew at them and it who’d, it warped into a vulture with arms for talons that dripped poison. Kari pulled her backpack open and pulled out another charm and threw it in the owls direction.

“Purify!” Her magic vanquished the owl in an instant, but in the owl’s place, two kappa came. Their frog—like appearance was thin and bones yet they managed to hop from tree to tree quickly chasing after them. Kari grabbed two more papers, threw them at the kappa, and repeated, “Purify!”

Kitsune, no longer in Natsu’s form, jumped into the air and lunged at Neko. Kitsune opened his mouth to bite Neko but fire came out instead.

“Barrier!” Kari shouted before the flames could touch them. Neko dodged Kitsune’s next attack and managed to get them closer to the edge of the forest.

“Don’t do it,” Neko warned as he tried to put more distance between them and the demons attacking them.

“I don’t have much choice,” Kari argued.

“We’re too far from the entrance.” Neko argued back.

Before Kari could counter argue Neko, seven foxes surrounded them. Each with yellow eyes and black smoke coming out of their mouths. Kari clasped her hands together in an instant and gathered her remaining energy.

“PURGE!”

Kari’s spell lit up three miles in every direction and the area was eradicated of evil. The fox and many other demons and spirits in the area vanished. Neko’s blue flames went out and they plummeted to the ground.

Neko struggled to stand as his spiritual energy was gone after he woke up from the fall. He would have to rely on his physical strength to get them out of this.The demons and spirits will gain their strength back faster than normal because of the equinox. Neko growled fiercely as a transparent being walked closer to them. His growl turned into hisses as he saw that the Kitsune was wearing Natsu’s face again.

“Take it easy, Karuppan, you’ll need my help to get out of here.” Neko froze as the spirit of Natsu hovered over Kari. He ran his hand over her. “No major harm is done. She’s just been depleted of energy. If you can get her home and let her rest, she should be just fine.”

“What did you call me?” Neko finally asked.

“Karuppan, your real name. Mine is Natsuki.” Natsuki turned to Neko. “You need to bite her and take some blood.”

Neko immediately growled. “Familiars can’t hurt their charge. We can only take what is willingly given.”

“I think you’ll be able to take some blood in order to protect her. I would give you my blood but,” Natsuki didn’t finish his sentence. He just stared challengingly into Neko’s eyes. “I can get you both out of here, but we need to act quickly before the Kitsune and other spirits rejuvenate.”

Neko glared at Natsuki but reluctantly listened to him and licked some dried blood from Kari’s hand.

“Ok, now get her onto your back.”

Neko struggled to get Kari onto his back with no hands but after a few minutes had her in an ok place on his back.

“Ready?”

“No, I think I can walk out of here.” Neko responded dryly.

“Karuppan, fly!” Natsuki ordered using Neko’s real name to bend the bond between Kari and Neko which forced Neko to listen to Natsuki. Neko’s magic flared blue and green and his body flew into the air on command and not of Neko’s choice. Neko moved on autopilot and he didn’t stop until they were home.

Some people found wonderful notes hidden in the forest that carry reminders that they are loved. Soon others would leave notes of goodwill and love to discourage those who come to the forest to die and encourage them to return home. To the humans, it seemed like an act of kindness: sometimes people need reminders that they are loved and wanted in the world and these small notes did that. They didn’t know that the words of love and encouragement came from a witch who had lost someone to the forest. But, what the mortals didn’t know or understand, they made up for by spreading the love and filling the forest with positive hopes and dreams.

That year the forest had a significantly reduced amount of deaths in the forest.

Cherish Larain, author.

Cherish Larain graduated from NIU with a Bachelor’s in English and a focus on Creative Writing. She has been writing and drawing her biweekly comic series, “MOC Comics”. She currently teaches English in Japan.